The title character in Stefano Benni’s darkly charming modern-day fairy tale Margherita Dolce Vita (Europa editions) is a precocious 14-year-old whose family lives in genteel bohemian poverty near the Great Meadow on the outskirts of an Italian town. Margherita specializes in terrible poetry, communicates with a spooky imaginary friend she calls the Dust Girl, and adores her canine sidekick, Sleepy, who she claims is a “prophet of calamity” (“according to a proverb: If Sleepy hides under a bed / Face the coming week with dread”).
When the creepily manipulative Del Bene family builds an über-modern home next door, Sleepy’s instincts appear to be dead-on. The newcomers insist on soaking the meadow in pesticides, chopping down trees, cleaning up the neighborhood, and exiling the local Gypsies. They use their impressive wealth and good looks—as well as gadgets like a plasma-screen TV and a posh Rolly Bahama Limousine 6000—to seduce Margherita’s parents and brothers. She seems to be the only one who’s not under the Del Benes’ control, and she begins to fear that their presence threatens not only her family’s old-fashioned values but their safety as well. Tipped off by the Del Benes estranged teenage son, Margherita sets out to discover who they are and what they want—with unpredictably disastrous results.
Benni is a well-known satirist in Italy, but the themes of urbanization, modernization, and nostalgia for “the good life” he allegorizes here will resonate with American readers—and his pitch-perfect heroine will translate as hilarious and marvelous in any culture.
By Corrie Pikul